‘KaunJaat’ gets a new avatar. At Hyderabad Central University



Newsletter Jan - Aug 2011

In 2009, we created a play titled ‘Kaun Jaat’ on the hold of caste, community and religious identity on women’s lives, sexuality and autonomy. It was a complex and rich process, which resulted in a play structured around monologues of women who share their experiences of being single, Dalit, in an interreligious marriage, lesbian, victims of sexual assault during conflict and so on. We have consequently also used the play as a tool in presentations etc. to open up the issues for discussion. Later the same year, one of our members, Akshara, moved to Hyderabad Central University for further studies. What follows is her account of how Kaun Jaat happened at HCU.

It began when two of us were walking into our ladies’ hostel in the middle of the night past a street lamp and commented on what a nice spot it would be to do a street play. At the time, many of us were feeling at a loss in terms of being able to articulate a number of concerns in the context of many developments that were taking place in the university. Primarily, we felt that a clear feminist voice could add to, for instance, ongoing conversations around caste, and resistance to the growing right-wing presence on our campus. We decided to put together a performance of the Saheli play ‘Kaun Jaat’, based on the Saheli report, ‘Voices from Within’, dealing with issues surrounding marriage, communalism, caste and identity. Through monologues and songs, it raises questions on several things, from caste and reservation, to women’s experiences in conflict situations.

It took a while for us to get together at the beginning. We pulled together a group of people, mostly friends, and began with a thorough reading of the Saheli report, as well as other materials we could find. Through our discussions, we were able to examine our individual positions on the issues we were trying to talk about, by taking apart our own experiences through the stories of our characters. Moving from dissipated conversations and reading sessions, we were soon working on the play almost full-time. Collectively, we wrote new ideas into the script, directed ourselves and each other, and since the process was new to all of us in many ways, figured it out as we went along. We adapted the play a little to make it more appropriate to the HCU context – while the report that the play was based on dealt primarily with people living in Delhi, we needed to make it less centred around the city for it to be more relevant to us as well as to the diverse group of people we were addressing. We also felt that the play as we were performing it, dealing as it does with questions surrounding women’s identities, needed to include the experiences of north-eastern women students, which was a relevant concern within the campus. Many conversations and rewrites later, we settled on a version of the play that we were comfortable with. Friends and acquaintances would drop into our rehearsals unannounced, and find themselves being roped into whatever discussions or exercises we had planned, giving us feedback, criticism and support. By the time we decided to perform it, we had been through so many things together – lots of intensity and emotion, as well as lots of fun and laughter. We had four performances around the campus, with often different audiences. One of the nicest things about this was the way so many other people got involved, from art students making impromptu sets before one of our performances, to friends who told us every time we missed a line, because they knew the script so well!

In all, the journey from deciding to do the play to actually doing it was incredible – intensely personal for all of us, and throwing up questions in new ways. We came together on the understanding that we needed to articulate these questions politically on campus, but also that we needed to question and critique our own engagements with them.

Some of the actors shared their experiences:

“I’ll always remember myself as too elusive and self-engrossed to express myself in a forthright manner. My excitement at the idea of using the Kaun Jaat script for performing a street play in the university was partly to understand and address some issues that ideally should’ve been taken up consistently by a women’s group in the campus. The other part of my excitement was the idea of friends coming together to perform.”

“Over a period of six months, I saw the coming together of six very different women, all of whom were friends, and the slow undoing of prejudices, misinformations, passivity and inhibitions to protest and to raise halla (clamour) about certain issues that had remained undiscussed in a gendered polarised space like HCU. Before we knew it, the play was our main preoccupation.

“It wasn’t the easiest thing to match our levels of seriousness and dedication to the play from the outset. My first jolt out of my passive attitude towards some of these issues related to violence against women was reading the Saheli report, and the discussions that followed around it amongst us. What followed was a deep dive into an emotional journey. Initially, each session was dedicated to creating story that was further fleshed out through interrogations and questions about the character itself. Slowly I saw the life of Meenakshi seep into me over the days of practice. And not just Meenakshi, but Bilkis, Rashida, Sapna, everybody..almost like we were a bunch of women living together, laughing together, going over our lives together and finding the strength to voice it and fight against it.”

“For me, Kaun Jaat was surely was an experience of speaking out. But what made it enriching was discovering and understanding why it was so essential to speak out – within the university space and in the context outside of it, starting from my family to the local bar. I can never forget how we didn’t even need cues to break into contagious chants collectively, irrespective of whether it was a bus stop or the shopping complex - ‘Farak padta hai humein is liye farak hum layenge’ (It makes a difference to us so we will bring about the change)! The collective energy that ran through the six of us was bustling and brimming and overflowing. Every night for those few months, we friends would walk down empty corridors to that open enclosure we practiced at. It often resounds of Meenakshi, Rashida, Leena, Sapna, Bilkis, Surekha. I drowned worries of pending assignments in laughter and character play, reclaiming unknown parts of me, tying myself with common threads of feelings with friends and generations of women.

“Recently, I was listening to a talk and realised the impact that doing this play (Kaun Jaat) had had on me. The perspective I gained from doing this play is something that I otherwise would have taken years to gain.”

“It has been more than a year since we did this play, but the memories of the late night discussions we had (both serious and funny) are still so fresh. I cannot forget the time we did this play at the Shopping Complex. It was a tough audience and I wanted to scream at them to make them listen. And scream I did, for all the women in my monologue, for the indifferent attitude I myself had sometimes taken, against that feeling of inability to do anything about it that I had felt way too many times. Did that achieve anything? Yes it did, it shook that all too familiar comfort zone inside me. That is something I will always remember.”